Film censorship continues and spreads in India

The Shyam Benegal Committee report does not help matters.

Written by Pankaj Butalia | Updated: June 8, 2016 9:23:50 am
Censor board, shyam benegal, Udta Punjab, Udta Punjab controversy, Udta Punjab censor issues, Censor board, shyam benegal committee, CBFC, Udta Punjab CBFC, Udta Punjab Censor board, India news One can understand why the state wants to shoot the messenger but why should a filmmaker provide it legitimacy?

Reports that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has asked for many cuts in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab as well as sought the removal of “Punjab” from its title give a complete lie to the government’s pronouncements that it would like to usher in an era of reduced control on films.

But they do fit in with the paranoia that exists in the minds of the CBFC members which allows a film to lie but does not allow it to tell the truth. This was stated in writing by the counsel for the CBFC in the Delhi High Court in a case against my documentary The Textures of Loss when he said that a fiction film is a work of fantasy and must, therefore, be given much more leeway for exhibition than a documentary, which actually tells things as they are — that is, tells the truth.

Applying the same logic, the CBFC has denied certification to two documentaries — Kamal Swaroop’s Dance for Democracy and late Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s En Dino Muzaffarnagar — in the past. Ironically, none of these actions are actually sanctioned either by The Cinematograph Act or by the various interpretations that courts have held on free speech and on film certification. Yet, individuals appointed to the CBFC continue to act as if they were the sole guardians of public morality, free speech and permissiveness in society.

The Indian government has made two half-hearted attempts to deal with the situation by appointing commissions to review the process of censorship. The Mukul Mudgal Committee Report (2013) was found inadequate and rightly consigned to the dustbin. The hype then shifted to the recently-formed Shyam Benegal Committee (2016) on film censorship. Given the fact that eminent film personalities were on the committee there was hope that at least, this time, the issue would be addressed with the seriousness it deserved but the final report has belied all expectations.

The broad themes of the report suggested that henceforth the focus will be on certification and not censorship; that the numbers of members of the CBFC will be reduced from 25 to 9; and that the categories of certification will be increased by two — one for minors and one for adults.

In itself, the reduction in membership and the increase in categories will do nothing to curtail the censorious attitude of the CBFC. The muddle-headedness of the committee can be seen in the one significant recommendation it has made. In saying the CBFC will no longer have the power to suggest/make cuts, the committee claims to have taken away the scissors. Unfortunately, what it gives with one hand it takes away, and in greater measure, with the other because it gives the CBFC the absolute right to refuse certification to a film which violates section 5B(1) of the act which states: “A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.”

This section of the act is nothing but a listing of the reasonable restrictions to free speech in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Now 19(2) poses a hurdle to free speech and anyone attempting to expand the scope of free speech must try and look for ways in which the powers that 19(2) gives to the state (and to the CBFC) can be restricted.

The Supreme Court has “read down” Article 19(2) in no unclear terms in innumerable judgments. The Benegal Committee could easily have made it mandatory for the CBFC to keep such interpretations in mind when evaluating whether there is a violation of 5B(1) or not. Instead, it has given blanket powers to the CBFC by stating “films that violate section 5B(1) of the Act shall not be considered for certification”. This is being more loyal than the king.

All the CBFC has to now do is to refuse certification to any film in which even a minor scene falls under section 5(B)1. After all, decency, morality, public order, the integrity of the country are very broad categories and the CBFC can just wash its hands off a film in the guise of respecting 5B(1). The Benegal Committee has converted censorship to self-censorship — the most effective form of state censorship.

But what happens if a filmmaker does not wish to make changes? The Benegal Committee’s answer to this is “no certification”. The committee’s attitude is reflected in Benegal’s statement to a newspaper (May 4), “If the CBFC refuses to clear films and advises cuts on the basis of section 5B(1), which filmmakers think are not appropriate, they can always challenge the decision in the court”. But surely the committee was set up to curtail the powers of the CBFC and not burden the courts with additional responsibility.

To further bolster his case on censorship, in the same report, Benegal says “You can criticise the establishment. For example, individual cases within the Indian Army can be highlighted in a film, but no country will accept showing its entire army in a bad light”.

First of all, this is just not true. The world over, films have been critical of the state, of the army or its actions. Witness the innumerable films that have been made in Hollywood criticising the US army for its actions in Vietnam and Iraq. It is scary when a senior filmmaker uses statist terms like “inciting communal violence or showing the army in a bad light”.

Films, particularly documentary films on communal violence are about violence that has already been practised by someone. A film is only a messenger. One can understand why the state wants to shoot the messenger but why should a filmmaker provide it legitimacy?

Forty years ago, as a young film enthusiast, I asked Benegal at a seminar whether a filmmaker ought not to be aware of the power of the medium and therefore careful of what and how to depict something. Benegal ticked me off by saying I had allowed the state to get into my head. Ironically it seems that the state now resides permanently in the heads of our leading filmmakers.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The state in their heads’)

The writer is a Delhi-based filmmaker who just won a case against the CBFC.

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